Airtime

The Penguin Goes Mobile


By Carlo Longino

The mobile world has been talking about Linux-powered smartphones for quite some time. Although they have yet to catch on in great numbers outside Asia, Linux for mobile holds great potential as a low-cost competitor to other mobile operating systems like Symbian, Palm OS and Windows Mobile. But putting Linux on a mobile phone isn't as simple as downloading a release and installing it on your desktop, and there are several obstacles to its wider adoption — but those barriers are beginning to fall.

The attraction of Linux for the mobile space is, on one level, much the same as other smartphone OSes: it can provide a flexible, powerful environment in which advanced applications and services can be run, and it can be updated with new applications. On another level, it's attractive over the proprietary operating systems because of economics — with handset selling prices constantly dropping and manufacturer margins under continuing pressure, every dollar counts. Mobile Linux backers say it can deliver on both counts: keeping costs for manufacturers low for low-end, cheap devices since it's royalty-free, while also providing an optimal technological environment. The basic idea is that there will be a baseline version of Linux for mobile devices, and then manufacturers can layer on software to support more features and functionality in more-advanced devices.

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Linux use in mobile phones has thus far largely been restricted to China, where a number of manufacturers support it. There have been a few Linux handsets released by Motorola that have made it to the West, though, and Panasonic and NEC have shipped 3G phones running Linux in Japan. Symbian remains the dominant smartphone OS, with nearly two-thirds of the market in the third quarter, according to Canalys, with Palm taking about 5% and Microsoft less than 3%. But all those Chinese phones are adding up: Linux took about 23% in the quarter, up from just 2.2% in the same period in 2004.

Smartphones still make up a small percentage of the overall number of mobile handsets sold — just roughly 13 million out of 205 million or so in the third quarter, or about 6% — but that figure is growing, and manufacturers are moving to push smartphones further down into the market, rather than just positioning them as high-end or business-focused devices. Again, that's where the flexibility of Linux comes in. It promises to allow manufacturers to standardize on a single software platform, instead of the mix of proprietary closed and smartphone OSes most now use.

That's where the biggest problem, lies, though: hammering the basic platform down into a standardized package, whether it's for a single manufacturer or industry-wide. Systems like Symbian and Windows Mobile are pretty consistent from one handset to the next, but that's not so with Linux devices. Manufacturers often have to implement their own extensions and applications that end up making different models that all run Linux incompatible with each other.

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To solve that problem, though, there are a few standardization efforts. One recently-announced one is the Mobile Linux Initiative of the Open Source Development Labs, which aims to make enhancements to the Linux kernel to make it more suitable for mobile devices, particularly in terms of radio interface, security and power management — the sort of baseline issues that any operating system on a mobile phone must address. One major issue is making Linux "real-time," meaning it must be able to respond very quickly to certain interruptions, a necessity for some telephony and multimedia applications. Giving mobile Linux real-time capability means it could run in a handset with a single processor, rather than the dual-processor setup that's the norm in other smartphone OSes.

Standardization efforts like that of the OSDL are important not just to make things simpler and easier for handset manufacturers; they're crucial to generate support from the large pool of existing Linux developers to create mobile applications. J2ME was hyped with the promise of write once/run anywhere, but different implementations of it from manufacturer to manufacturer, even handset to handset, as well as technical limitations, kept that from being a reality. Other smartphone OSes and user interfaces, like Series 60 or Windows Mobile on phones offer developers a consistent environment as well as a wide range of devices capable of running their applications without having to port them for different phones. If the Linux market remains as fragmented as that of Java, the growth of third-party applications written for it will be stunted as well.

Support is growing for mobile Linux, with a number of manufacturers like Palm, Microsoft and Panasonic saying they're looking to shift some, if not most, of their product lines to it in the medium to long term. Should standardization efforts take hold and prove successful, a large number of people should soon be using Linux on their smartphones.

Carlo Longino is a writer and analyst who follows the mobile industry. He's co-editor of MobHappy, and also an analyst for Techdirt. He can be reached at carlo@mobhappy.com.

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